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A primary concern for taxpayers

// Published April 7, 2008 in The Grand Rapid Newspaper
Away from the continuing drama surrounding Michigan's presidential primary -- Will Democrats revote? Will delegates be seated? -- is a more fundamental question: Who should have access to the information generated by the Jan. 15 election?

The obvious answer, just affirmed by a federal court in Detroit, is that the data should not be reserved exclusively for an elite political class -- the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties. Taxpayers funded the election. They should have access to it, too.

The ruling overturned a crucial portion of the state law that created the primary. The law required that only political party leaders would receive the lists of those who selected either Democratic or Republican ballots. The lists are valuable for fund-raising, recruiting and targeting automated telephone calls.

The arrangement is patently unfair, a violation of the constitutional right to equal treatment under the law, as U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds ruled. The suit against Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land was brought by the Green Party, Libertarian Party and Reform Party, in addition to the Metro Times newspaper and political consultant David Forsmark. All wanted the lists for their own purposes.

"The State is not required to provide the party preference information to any party," Judge Edmunds wrote in her opinion. "When it chooses to do so, however, it may not provide information only to the major political parties."

In the wake of that decision, Ms. Land has decided not to give the lists to anyone, at least until the court's ruling is thoroughly scoured by her lawyers. In fact, the lists of Democratic and Republican voters in the primary don't even exist right now and haven't been compiled by local elections officials or the secretary of state. However, just as lists of whether citizens vote (but not for who or what party) are public information, these lists ought to be as well. The key point from Judge Edmunds' rulings is not that the lists should be kept under wraps, but that they should be handled fairly.

Voters , naturally, fear that this information will be used to bombard them with unsolicited election material. The solution there is not to muzzle political parties or halt the dissemination of public information. The solution is to more evenly regulate political advertising in the state, something legislators have failed miserably to do.

In particular, lawmakers need to better control those annoying robotic telephone calls -- robo-calls -- which voters will receive this fall regardless of the availability of the Jan. 15 voter lists. Currently, the calls can be made anonymously. Sometimes, that cloak of secrecy has been used for false attacks in the final hour of campaigns. That is in sharp contrast to other forms of political advertising such as mailings, radio and television commercials which require tag lines explaining who paid for and sponsored the material.

The principle there is the same as the principle outlined by Judge Edmunds regarding the primary information: equal and fair treatment. In both cases, political leaders have cravenly put their own perceived interests ahead of the people they serve.